“I wish I felt more prepared. I wish I felt more informed. And I wish I felt more confident.”
Published in partnership with Medical Herstory
Birth control! What comes to mind when you hear the phrase? Perhaps you think of hormonal options, like the combined pill, mini pill, IUD, implant or patch. Maybe barrier methods come to mind, like condoms or diaphragms. For many people who use it, birth control becomes quite the journey. Every individual has a different experience shaped by their unique body and their experiences with healthcare professionals. Medical Herstory, in collaboration with Reya Health, are here to support you in navigating this.
Medical Herstory embraces patient empowerment, knowledge and advocacy in health experiences, which includes birth control. As an international not-for-profit, our mission is to eliminate sexism, shame, and stigma from these health experiences. We fulfill this mission through sharing personal stories, like those of volunteers Julia, Beth, Erin, Sophie and Molly…
First of all: it is not okay if a birth control appointment leaves you feeling judged, uninformed or overwhelmed. Our healthcare professionals can, and should, do better.
Julia looks back on her first birth control consultation: “I felt so uncertain about and uncomfortable with the whole process. The internalized stigma of being sexually active–even though I was really proud of myself for taking a responsible step–was intense. I knew I needed to take this step and wanted to do it, but I struggled to navigate the process of getting prescribed the pill.”
Beth recalls her first experience as follows: “Going to the sexual health clinic for the first time was a very daunting experience. I went with my mum and had all of the contraceptive options explained to me. I remember that at the time, none of them felt particularly appealing, but I decided to get the implant.”
Julia continues: “There were so many other birth control options that I was unaware of and didn’t expect to get to pick between, which was also daunting. I wish I felt more prepared. I wish I felt more informed. And I wish I felt more confident. I stuck with the pill because it felt less invasive and seemed like a manageable option. However, I never stopped wondering if I made the right choice, especially once I started bleeding during my pill days and didn’t know what was wrong or who to consult for answers."
Healthcare professionals should show awareness of the gendered stigmas around becoming sexually active for the first time, and actively put their patient at ease. They should make their patient aware of all their options, including comparative efficacy and possible side effects, and play a guiding role in helping the patient navigate what can feel like an overwhelming choice.
Of course, birth control isn’t only used to prevent pregnancy. Barrier methods also protect against STIs, and hormonal methods can be used to minimize period pain, regulate our cycles, reduce hormonal acne, and alleviate symptoms of gynaecological disorders.
Erin, for example, started taking birth control to manage her endometriosis symptoms: “In my journey for a diagnosis, I tried 6 kinds of hormonal birth control, including 5 different pills and an IUD, in 4 years. During this time, I felt a range of emotions: relief for improved symptoms, frustration at worsened symptoms and medication failure, and wondered about what medication would work for me and my situation. Spoiler alert! In hindsight, I realized I should've done more research before getting an IUD and paid more attention to how my body reacted to the various pills I tried. I feel this especially now that I have more choice in my birth control method since having surgery to remove my endometriosis.”
Just like with any medical issue, our birth control journeys might involve poor healthcare experiences. In these instances, do your own research using reputable sources and then re-approach the problem armed with information about your body’s needs.
Molly tells us: “On my first visit to my local sexual health center, I told the nurse that having sex with condoms was extremely painful and I felt a burning sensation. The nurse told me that sex can feel like this for the first couple of times. She then suggested that since I was now having sex, I should start taking the pill as it was more effective at preventing pregnancy than condoms. I knew a lot of my friends were on the pill and I wanted to be seen as being responsible so I agreed. Once on the pill, I stopped using condoms and noticed that sex became far less painful although I assumed that I was now just used to having sex. It was only 2 years later that I tried using condoms again and the same sensation happened. After researching other peoples’ experiences online, I realized I was allergic to latex!”
Severe pain during sex is not normal, despite being wrongfully normalized. This assumption is a hangover from the worldview that sex only exists for men’s pleasure while women merely ‘put up with it’. Latex allergies are one condition that may be behind painful sexual experiences.
Molly continues, “I went back on the pill for a while until my GP suggested that I get the contraceptive implant in my arm, as it would last for two years and would be more convenient than taking a pill everyday. I was happy to try something new and, again, felt like this was the responsible thing to do.”
Sophie reveals, “Once, during a contraceptive pill check-up, the nurse took my blood pressure three times before declaring it low enough to authorize the prescription.”
Increases in blood pressure, which can lead to serious cardiovascular complications, are a potential, albeit very rare, side effect of the contraceptive pill.
Sophie tells us: “Ever since the appointment I felt super uncomfortable. I worried about blood clots and strokes - all the worst case scenarios. I researched alternative options and then called my GP surgery to request to be moved from the combined pill to the mini pill (which carries a lower blood clot risk). I’m so glad I made the change because I know this is what’s right for me.”
Plenty of people experience no side effects from birth control. However, side effects do sometimes happen, and so changing your birth control practices - the brand or the method itself - can be necessary in order to improve your health and quality of life. To bring your side effects to healthcare professionals’ attention, you must self-advocate.
Molly’s story continues: “My first implant was a success, however after the second implant I noticed I was more emotionally sensitive, had low mood a lot of the time, and was disinterested in sex. My nurse assured me that this would all settle but I pushed for it to be removed. After these experiences, I chose to use latex-free condoms with my partner and finally felt like I had made a responsible choice for my body that worked for me. I received a lot of information growing up about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases but I wish I learned more about the experiences of others using contraceptives and how to feel empowered in my own decisions around sexual health or intimacy”.
Sophie experienced side effects from one brand of the combined pill: “Ever since I was 18 I’ve moved between university towns and my hometown, meaning my medical records aren’t shared between all the healthcare professionals I see. Because of this, at one check-up the nurse had to ask me the name of the pill brand I was taking. I couldn’t remember, so I was given something different. That new pill gave me all sorts of side effects, including dark blotches all over my body and inexplicably bursting into tears. I requested to change back to the previous brand as soon as possible.”
To wrap up, we return to Beth who tells us: “While I have experienced various symptoms on the implant (pelvic pain, mood changes, reduced libido) my current one (my fourth implant!) has caused my symptoms to be more severe. I'm now looking for alternative contraception, but again I find the options inadequate. Exploring contraceptive options always reminds me of how much women's pain is normalized; every single form of contraception potentially involves pain, whether that be through their insertion or through the symptoms that may accompany them. More than this, however, this pain is seen as something that doesn't need to be solved, just something that we should expect."
We’re all different and so selecting the correct type of birth control for yourself can feel overwhelming, frustrating, and straight-up confusing. To combat these feelings, we encourage you to research your options. Use credible and reliable sources, like physicians and research-based articles and websites, weigh your options, and give yourself time. Above all, we encourage you to recognize your power in any decision to use birth control and determine which method will work best for you.
Medical Herstory is here to share these stories, provide information and support, and build community. This is all done to destigmatize health experiences and to improve patient advocacy and medical education. If you want to share your own story or learn more about Medical Herstory, visit https://medicalherstory.com or follow us @medicalherstory on all major social media platforms.